Since the early 2000s, our commercial and political lives have become inundated with interactive tailoring. It doesn’t take much to participate—willingly, reluctantly, or unwittingly. If you’ve ever used a credit card, registered a purchase, or registered yourself on a website, or if you’ve ever given personal information in order to get a discount or make a purchase, online or face to face, then you’ve been watering a growing field known as “database marketing.” Once you’ve been digitized, you can be tracked across various sites from your snail-mail magazine subscriptions to calls you make by landline or mobile phone to the GPS technology in your car. Beyond these baselines of input, there are greater and greater levels at which you participate in information tailoring as you visit your iGoogle homepage, customize news and entertainment feeds, blog, or otherwise contribute to the sea of information and opinion on the web. That information is then combined with other data about you, including how you use the web, to enable marketers to further customize types of appeals and media content to you.

Michael Rakowitz, Michael McGee’s <em>paraSITE</em> Shelter, 2000.

Michael Rakowitz, Michael McGee’s paraSITE Shelter, 2000. Plastic bags, polyethylene tubing, hooks, tape. 26th Street and 9th Avenue, Manhattan. Courtesy of the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York.

Joseph Turow denounced these digital-marketing practices as culturally divisive in Niche Envy (2006). Marketing insiders Bernice Kanner and David Verklin took an affirmative tone in Watch This Listen Up Click Here (2007). Yet all agree on the mechanisms by which marketers help us steer ourselves into media cocoons. In this process, we are “pulled” toward customizing our own media content, as when we create preferences on websites or become drawn to them in the first place by savvy precision marketing.6 Simultaneously, more personalized content is “pushed” toward us. Marketers of commercial and political content alike push ads and other messages to people based on information marketers have about them, which is derived from people’s own inputs. Such “mass customization” is working every time Amazon.com or TiVo suggests books or programs you might like. It is also a growing trend in digital advertisements and product placements. Examples include the cable company Comcast’s Adtag and Adcopy software and the even greater-customization-capable, real-time-operative Intellispot software which, Turow notes, “could seamlessly send an African-American household a car commercial with an African-American female driver while it sent a Korean-American household the same commercial with a different price incentive and a Korean-American male driver.”7 These various trends in tailoring erode the common cultural frames of reference on which a deliberative democracy thrives.

In the context of political campaigns, tailoring shows its destructive impact on democracy directly. Individual households regularly receive solicitations from political campaigners designed to appeal to them based on what market research reveals about their preferences, what issues they prioritize, and to what language and imagery they are receptive. Bill Clinton’s 1996 presidential campaign success was credited in part to his shrewd use of micro-targeting to address voters in particular “lifestyle clusters.”8

Michael Rakowitz, Michael McGee’s <em>paraSITE</em> Shelter, 2000.

Michael Rakowitz, Michael McGee’s paraSITE Shelter, 2000. Plastic bags, polyethylene tubing, hooks, tape. 26th Street and 9th Avenue, Manhattan. Courtesy of the artist and Lombard-Freid Projects, New York.

Refinements of micro-targeting for the 2004 presidential campaigns amplified social differences and consolidated the likeminded. Based on interviews with Bush/Cheney strategists, Bishop observed that the campaign intentionally departed from the deliberative model and moved toward increasing turnout among those already inclined, based on research into their other preferences, to vote for George W. Bush. Pursuing a “friends and neighbors” strategy, they facilitated convivial social events among those listed as belonging to certain church groups, hunters’ groups, and among people who signed petitions such as to outlaw gay marriage. The campaign directed canvassers not to try to persuade or argue with people.9 A PBS documentary on branding and market research, The Persuaders (2004), offers more evidence of social-mirroring tactics. Door-to-door campaign workers for an undisclosed presidential campaign customized palm-pilot video messages.10 Racial segregation had taken a technologically sophisticated and precisely calculated turn, as the documentary showed one black woman presenting another black woman with a video clip of a third black woman campaigning.

Footnotes

  1. Turow, Niche Envy: Marketing Discrimination in the Digital Age (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006); Bernice Kanner and David Verklin, Watch This Listen Up Click Here: Inside the 300 Billion Dollar Business Behind the Media You Constantly Consume (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2007).
  2. Turow, Niche Envy, 112. For an in-depth treatment of the use of data mining to customize “pushed” TV content, see Turow’s entire chapter “Rethinking Television.”
  3. With his pioneering use of micro-targeting, Clinton was able to craft specific messages to undecided voters in particular “lifestyle clusters.” Using the PRIZ M metric of the precision-marketing company Claritas, Inc., to define them, clusters were labeled—in all seriousness—with such caricatures as “Big Sky Families” and “Family Scramble.” Weiss, 36-37.
  4. Bill Bishop, 254-64.
  5. Frontline, The Persuaders, 90 minutes, distributed by PBS Video, a department of the Public Broadcasting Service, 2004. This documentary focuses on branding and micromarketing.
Further Reading